Portrait of Christina McBride. Photo by Dan Gleiter.

What They Learned: Christina McBride ’23

McBride’s research seeks to understand the ways in which microbes produce a particular class of natural products.

If Christina McBride had to judge a competition to find the “world’s best organic chemists”, she would be confident that nature would outperform all laboratory efforts at molecular synthesis. McBride’s thesis research seeks to understand the ways in which microbes produce a particular class of natural products–type II polyketides–which have been shown to exhibit potent antibacterial and anticancer properties.

McBride, a chemistry major with a biochemistry concentration, learned a lot from conducting her research and shares some of her biggest takeaways. 

“Beyond learning so much about the literal science, such as learning about how microbes make molecules or how to write R code, completing my thesis has taught me so much about what being a scientist entails,” McBride said. “From fostering a growth mindset that allows me to overcome tough obstacles (such as losing a protein sample or having to rewrite broken code for the tenth time), to implementing inclusive mentorship practices that create a welcoming and supportive environment for fellow scientists, and even to learning when to take a break and step away from my research, my thesis experience has helped me cultivate the soft skills needed to thrive as a researcher. I’ve learned that being a “scientist” means being a “person” too, in the sense that we have to consider our whole, genuine selves (our passions, our physical and mental health, our creativity, and our lives outside of STEM) in our science in order to be the best and happiest we can be.”

The bioinformatic portion of her research, “An updated catalogue of diverse type II polyketide synthase biosynthetic gene clusters captured from large-scale nucleotide databases,” was published this past March in Microbial Genomics, making the data and computational workflow available for other researchers to explore – and, Christina hopes –  utilize in their work. 

“Gaining a deeper understanding of natural product biosynthesis (how nature makes molecules) allows us to both find new natural products (and potentially new medicines) as well as better understand how we could use the science of nature to manufacture “non-natural natural products” in the lab,” McBride said. “The specific molecules we study — type II polyketides — are known for their antibacterial, anticancer, and antifungal activity, so discovering new ones may improve our ability to treat disease. Specifically, my research sought to 1) curate a comprehensive list of type II polyketide systems found in nature using bioinformatics, and 2) study the interactions between two of the proteins that help manufacture type II polyketide molecules.” 

McBride credits her thesis advisors for having such an impact on her research.

“I have been very fortunate to work under two spectacular mentors at Haverford, Professor of Chemistry Lou Charkoudian and Assistant Professor of Biology Eric Miller, who have generously supported me and my research efforts. Both are absolutely brilliant researchers, and their passion for science and devotion to inclusive mentorship have allowed me to grow and thrive throughout my undergraduate career. While the bulk of my research was based in Lou’s lab, merging their unique expertise (Eric as an amazing bioinformatician and Lou as an unstoppable bioorganic chemist) allowed me to explore my project from multiple angles and widen my scientific skill set!”

The Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, native was a Arnold and Mabel Beckman Scholar and Goldwater Scholar during her time at Haverford. She plans to continue her research while earning her doctorate.

“Starting this fall, I will be pursuing a PhD in Chemical Biology at the University of Michigan as a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow,” McBride said.  “While I still have a year to choose which lab I will join, I hope to continue my research on natural product biosynthesis, possibly exploring medicinal molecules made by plants or searching what is known as the biosynthetic “sequence space” to find new enzymes to carry out useful organic reactions.”

“What They Learned” is a blog series exploring the thesis work of recent graduates.